A Map For A Return To Nature

Shelley Hudson Robbins

This guest post is written by Shelley Hudson Robbins. She is the Sustainable Communities and Clean Air Associate with Upstate Forever and a native North Carolinian. She is an unapologetic treehugger with an economics degree and an MBA and policy experience in Florida and Oklahoma. She has lived in Spartanburg since 1998.

Shelley spoke about the Special Places Inventory after last week’s Green Screen film Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau.

Stories. Spartanburg is full of wonderful storytellers – the writers, poets, artists and musicians who increasingly influence the collective conscience of this town. Our surrounding landscape is loaded with wonderful stories that we are beginning to more fully appreciate (hence the county’s new marketing tagline Revolutionary! – a nod to our Revolutionary War stories).

And as Lawson Revan and I began work on a project called A Special Places Inventory of Spartanburg County back in 2009, more stories long forgotten began to emerge. This study, a GIS-based resource co-occurrence model accompanied by beautiful maps, photographs and narratives, is nicknamed the SPI and attempts to identify the last remaining reasonably intact larger scale ecosystems in Spartanburg County (we identified six). We have dozens of stories to tell connected with this project – about “rediscovering” a remarkable forgotten historic site called The Williams Place thanks to Dr. Phil Racine; trekking across a mile of blackberry bramble and poison oak and then up the middle of the North Tyger River looking for Ott’s Shoals, only to find them buried under sand from careless upstream construction stormwater practices; sorting through a plastic box of arrowheads with Dr. Terry Ferguson in the northern part of the county to unexpectedly find a 5000 year old projectile point. These are great stories, and I love sharing them (and yes, I love my job).

Co-occurrence Raster and CFAs

But ultimately I find the SPI’s backstory to be the most compelling, the most frustrating, and the saddest – and that is the story of why the SPI is necessary in the first place. The SPI was designed by Upstate Forever to be a completely objective, fully transparent and replicable analysis of Spartanburg County’s ecosystems. It is a cold tool – five layers of indexed GIS data (rare and endangered plants, a 27-class land cover layer, a species richness layer, a streams layer, and population density). It is a collection of hard facts, warmed up with the accompanying maps, photos and narratives. We knew that this project would not garner much respect and support without this level of objective disconnect from the land and the water and the trees themselves. In an ironic twist, this study is intentionally emotionally disconnected from the landscape that we are trying so desperately to protect and preserve for future generations.

I find it sad that as a society in Upstate South Carolina, we don’t immediately recognize the peril in which we have placed our supporting ecosystems with our hunger for consumption – of water, of land, of resources, of stuff. The SPI is necessary because we fail to see the gestalt – how interconnected these lands, our health, our happiness, and our future are. A clear indicator of this is the fact that we have no loud outcry for land use planning whatsoever in this county. We insist that we be allowed to do whatever we want on our own property. But remember the hunt for Ott’s Shoals I mentioned? Those shoals were buried forever by multiple small acts of carelessness – typically clearcutting down to the water – miles and miles upstream over many years.

The historic emphasis on private property rights was perceived as reasonable when the population was sparse, we had distance from our neighbor as a buffer, we couldn’t see the impacts of our actions downstream, and there was more functional ecosystem left to heal and hide our sins. But our population has increased every single year, even in the depths of the economic downturn, and we have pushed farther into our pristine areas and closer together. These few remaining natural areas will soon be gone – buried or paved or turned into turf grass – and will not be available to cleanse our water and our air and to support a healthy diversity of flora and fauna. The SPI tries to remedy this by presenting these special places within the context of the county as a whole while providing a surprising level of detail.

So on behalf of Upstate Forever, I present A Special Places Inventory of Spartanburg County as an objective, analytical tool that we may use to rediscover these special places, to add new stories back into the landscape when we reconnect emotionally with the lands and waters that nourish our bodies and our souls. It is my hope that this study – that started with some cold hard facts – will encourage us to step away from our electronics and to get out into these natural parts of our county so that we will know for ourselves what beauty we have here and must take action to protect – before it is gone. The SPI is a map to return to nature.

A Special Places Inventory of Spartanburg County is available for download on the right hand side of the webpage at www.upstateforever.org. Also, stop by the Spartanburg office downtown next door to Groucho’s to see the SPI window display, and then go create some stories.


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